Drainage workers' deaths in manhole ruled an accident

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 May, 2007, 12:00am

The deaths of two drainage workers who were found unconscious in a fume-filled manhole last August were accidents, a five-member jury found yesterday.

But the jury, which heard evidence at the two-day inquest, made two recommendations to reinforce safety precaution for workers going into the sewers.

It suggested the Labour Department and Occupational Safety and Health Council should provide one to two hours of training to qualified drainage workers each year to strengthen their awareness of potential danger.

It also recommended the Labour Department make it mandatory for employers to provide safety equipment when an operation in a confined space is required.

Drainage workers Wong Keung and Cheung Shue-hung, both 46, were found dead in Sha Tin on August 1 after trying to install a plug more than two metres down to stop sewage leaking from a repair site 400 metres away.

Wong's son, Wong Kwan-pui, 23, said the verdict was within their expectation and the family had been receiving the equivalent of his father's salary from a contractor since his death.

'I came to this inquest to find out details about how my father died,' he said. During yesterday's hearing, Yip Sai-cheung, an occupational hygienist from the Labour Department responsible for the investigation, told the Coroner's Court it remained a mystery why the workers ended up in the manhole as their work did not require them to go down there.

'Manholes are very dirty and ridden with rats and cockroaches,' he said. 'Workers are always clad in a protective overall before going down to work, but they weren't.'

An autopsy report submitted to the court said Cheung was poisoned by hydrogen sulphide and Wong drowned after being overcome by the toxic gas.

Mr Yip said a possible explanation was that Cheung entered the hole or accidentally fell in and Wong tried to rescue his colleague but was overcome by the fumes.

The manhole was not blocked by boards or fences as required by law.

Alan Fan Kam-fat - the barrister representing the project's main contractor, Shun Yuen - challenged the speculation that Cheung may have fallen to his death.

'Cheung's skull was not broken. There were only minor bruises and abrasions on his limbs,' he said. 'Did such findings support your hypothesis [that he fell]? Possibilities are many.'

Coroner Josiah Lam Wai-kuen intervened and said a man falling from a height did not necessarily break his skull. The coroner also stopped Mr Fan from continuing a probe into whether a nearby kerb constituted a natural safety barrier as he said it was not a matter for the Coroner's Court to decide.

Shun Yuen faces lawsuits alleging it had failed to provide a safe working environment.